Iroquoian languages

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eastern North America
Linguistic classificationOne of the world's primary language families
ISO 639-2 / 5iro
Pre-European contact distribution of the Iroquoian languages.

The Iroquoian languages are a language family of indigenous peoples of North America. They are known for their general lack of labial consonants. The Iroquoian languages are polysynthetic and head-marking.[1]

As of 2020, almost all surviving Iroquoian languages are severely or critically endangered, with some languages only having a few elderly speakers remaining. The two languages with the most speakers, Mohawk (Kenien’kéha) in New York and Cherokee, are spoken by less than 10% of the populations of their nations.[2][3]

Labeled map showing pre-contact distribution of the Iroquoian languages

Family division[edit]

Northern Iroquoian
(Lake Iroquoian)
Iroquois Proper (Five Nations)
Seneca (severely endangered)
Cayuga (severely endangered)
Onondaga (severely endangered)
Susquehannock or Conestoga (*)
Oneida (severely endangered)
Huronian (*)
Huron-Wyandot (severely endangered)
Petun (Tobacco) (*)
Tuscarora (*)
Meherrin (*)
Nottoway (severely endangered)
Wenrohronon or Wenro (*)
Neutral (*)
Erie (*)
Laurentian (*)
Southern Iroquoian
South Carolina-Georgia dialect (aka Lower dialect) (*)
North Carolina dialect (aka Middle or Kituwah dialect) (severely endangered)
Oklahoma dialect (aka Overhill or Western dialect) (definitely endangered)

(*) — language extinct/dormant

Evidence is emerging that what has been called the Laurentian language appears to be more than one dialect or language.[4] Ethnographic and linguistic field work with the Wyandot tribal elders (Barbeau 1960) yielded enough documentation for scholars to characterize and classify the Huron and Petun languages.

The languages of the tribes that constituted the tiny Wenrohronon,[a] the powerful Conestoga Confederacy and the confederations of the Neutral Nation and the Erie Nation are very poorly documented in print. The Neutral were called Atiwandaronk, meaning 'they who understand the language' by the Huron (Wyandot people). They are historically grouped together, and geographically the Wenro's range on the eastern end of Lake Erie placed them between the larger confederations. To the east of the Wenro, beyond the Genesee Gorge, were the lands of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy and southeast, beyond the headwaters of the Allegheny River, lay the Conestoga (Susquehannocks).[5] The Conestoga Confederacy and Erie were militarily powerful and respected by neighboring tribes.[5] By 1660 all of these peoples but the Conestoga Confederacy and the Haudenosaunee Confederacy were defeated and scattered, migrating to form new tribes or adopted into others—the practice of adopting valiant enemies into the tribe was a common cultural tradition of the Iroquoian peoples.[5]

The group known as the Meherrin were neighbors to the Tuscarora and the Nottoway (Binford 1967) in the American South and may have spoken an Iroquoian language. There is not enough data to determine this with certainty.

External relationships[edit]

Attempts to link the Iroquoian, Siouan, and Caddoan languages in a Macro-Siouan family are suggestive but remain unproven (Mithun 1999:305).

Linguistics and language revitalization[edit]

As of 2012, a program in Iroquois linguistics at Syracuse University, the Certificate in Iroquois Linguistics for Language Learners, is designed for students and language teachers working in language revitalization.[6][7]

Six Nations Polytechnic in Ohsweken, Ontario offers Ogwehoweh language Diploma and Degree Programs in Mohawk or Cayuga.[8]

Starting in September 2017, the University of Waterloo in Waterloo, Ontario started offering a credit course in Mohawk; the classes are to be given at Renison University College in collaboration with the Waterloo Aboriginal Education Centre, St. Paul's University College.[9]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Historical examination of the Jesuits records suggest that, following the Seneca conquest of Oil Spring in 1638, the Wenro may have had as few as three villages sandwiched between Buffalo & Rochester (i.e., between the Niagara and Genesee Rivers).[5]


  1. ^ Mithun, Marianne. "Grammaticalization and Polysynthesis: Iroquoian" (PDF). Johannes-Gutenberg-Universität Mainz. Archived from the original (PDF) on February 14, 2020. Retrieved June 8, 2015. {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  2. ^ "UNESCO Interactive Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger". Retrieved December 17, 2017.
  3. ^ "Iroquoian Languages". February 22, 2008. Archived from the original on February 23, 2012. Retrieved August 9, 2015.
  4. ^ "Laurentian Language and the Laurentian Indian Tribe (Stadaconan, Kwedech, Hochelagan)". Retrieved April 11, 2020.
  5. ^ a b c d Editor: Alvin M. Josephy, Jr., by The editors of American Heritage Magazine (1961). pages 188–219 (ed.). The American Heritage Book of Indians. American Heritage Publishing Co., Inc. LCCN 61-14871. {{cite encyclopedia}}: |author= has generic name (help)CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  6. ^ "Certificate in Iroquois Linguistics for Language Learners". University College. Retrieved September 6, 2012.
  7. ^ Gale Courey Toensing (September 2, 2012). "Iroquois Linguistics Certificate at Syracuse University Comes at Important Time for Native Languages". Indian Country Today Media Network. Archived from the original on September 4, 2012. Retrieved September 6, 2012.
  8. ^ "University Program". Six Nations Polytechnic. Retrieved December 3, 2021.
  9. ^ Bueckert, Kate (August 17, 2017). "Mohawk language course to be offered for 1st time at UW". CBC News. Retrieved August 17, 2017.

Further reading[edit]


  • Barbeau, C. Marius (1960), Huron-Wyandot Traditional Narratives in Translations and Native Texts, National Museum of Canada Bulletin 47; Anthropological Series 165, [Ottawa]: Canada Dept. of Northern Affairs and National Resources, OCLC 1990439.
  • Binford, Lewis R. (1967), "An Ethnohistory of the Nottoway, Meherrin and Weanock Indians of Southeastern Virginia", Ethnohistory, Ethnohistory, Vol. 14, No. 3/4, vol. 14, no. 3/4, pp. 103–218, doi:10.2307/480737, JSTOR 480737.
  • Chilton, Elizabeth (2004), "Social Complexity in New England: AD 1000–1600", in Pauketat, Timothy R.; Loren, Diana Dipaolo (eds.), North American Archaeology, Malden, MA: Blackwell Press, pp. 138–60, OCLC 55085697.
  • Goddard, Ives, ed. (1996), Handbook of North American Indians, Vol. 17: Languages, Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, ISBN 0-16-048774-9, OCLC 43957746.
  • Lounsbury, Floyd G. (1978), "Iroquoian Languages", in Trigger, Bruce G. (ed.), Handbook of North American Indians, Vol. 15: Northeast, Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, pp. 334–43 [unified volume Bibliography, pp. 807–90], OCLC 58762737.
  • Martin, Scott W. J. (July 2008). "Languages Past and Present: Archaeological Approaches to the Appearance of Northern Iroquoian Speakers in the Lower Great Lakes Region of North America". American Antiquity. Cambridge University Press. 73 (3): 441–463. doi:10.1017/S0002731600046813. JSTOR 25470499. S2CID 151035122.
  • Mithun, Marianne (1984), "The Proto-Iroquoians: Cultural Reconstruction from Lexical Materials", in Foster, Michael K.; Campisi, Jack; Mithun, Marianne (eds.), Extending the Rafters: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Iroquoian Studies, Albany: State University of New York Press, pp. 259–82, ISBN 0-87395-781-4, OCLC 9646457.
  • Mithun, Marianne (1985), "Untangling the Huron and the Iroquois", International Journal of American Linguistics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 51, no. 4, pp. 504–7, doi:10.1086/465950, JSTOR 1265321, S2CID 143896562.
  • Mithun, Marianne (1999), The Languages of Native North America, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-23228-7, OCLC 40467402.
  • Rudes, Blair A. (1993), "Iroquoian Vowels", Anthropological Linguistics, vol. 37, no. 1, pp. 16–69.

General works[edit]

  • Driver, Harold E. 1969. Indians of North America. 2nd edition. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 9780226164670
  • Ruttenber, Edward Manning. 1992 [1872]. History of the Indian tribes of Hudson's River. Hope Farm Press.
  • Snow, Dean R. 1994. The Iroquois. Blackwell Publishers. Peoples of America. ISBN 9781557862259
  • Snow, Dean R.; Gehring, Charles T; Starna, William A. 1996. In Mohawk country: early narratives about a native people. Syracuse University Press. An anthology of primary sources from 1634–1810.